Two new shows currently on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco depict the culturally flourishing Jewish life in Poland in 1919-1939, between the two great European wars. What used to be a center of concentrated creative energies directed toward literature, music, theatre, film, press, and social advancements was about to become ground zero for concentration camps, torture chambers, and death factories.
A collection of the 1930s images produced by photographer Ze’ev (Wilhelm) Aleksandrowicz is at the base of the exhibition “Poland and Palestine: Two Lands and Two Skies.” Escaping the pre-WWII Europe, already saturated with the Nazi propaganda and violent anti-Semitism in the 1930s, those who could afford to move out headed for the British Mandate (Palestine) to start a new life. Years before the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, the Polish Jews were leaving their well-established homes in Warsaw and Krakow to settle in the desert – build houses, dig canals, develop agriculture, endure, and survive.
The second exhibition, “Letters to Afar” is a large-scale audiovisual art installation created by internationally acclaimed Budapest-based filmmaker and video-artist Péter Forgács in collaboration with the New York City-based band The Klezmatics. It's a reworking of rare amateur movies made by Jewish immigrants who often returned to their homeland on brief visits from the United States. In this show, the focus is on the other class of Polish Jewry – the poor inhabitants of small towns and villages – who couldn’t escape the approaching annihilation by the Nazi regime, and almost completely vanished in the Holocaust. Smiling faces, children’s faces, bearded elders, dressed up women, young people engaged in sports, a country wedding, a market day – the grainy footage of amateur films puts human faces on the Holocaust statistics making a subdued yet profound statement about the life that once was and vanished forever. There’s nothing in the exhibition that would remind the public of the horrors that ensued, making this presentation ever more powerful.
Both exhibitions are on view through May 24 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission Street (between Third & Fourth Streets), San Francisco. The Museum is open daily (except Wednesday) 11am–5pm and Thursday, 11am–8pm. Museum admission is $12 for adults, $10 for students and senior citizens with a valid ID, and $5 on Thursdays after 5pm. Youth 18 and under always get in free. For general information call 415.655.7800 or visit www.thecjm.org.